LGBTQ South Florida

Pedro Zamora scholarship honors Miami AIDS activist who died at 22

Abdon Orrostieta receives the Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship during World AIDS Day ceremony in San Francisco. Orrostieta, from Pompano Beach, is a junior at University of Central Florida and volunteers with Latinos Salud, a nonprofit community- and minority-based HIV agency.
Abdon Orrostieta receives the Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship during World AIDS Day ceremony in San Francisco. Orrostieta, from Pompano Beach, is a junior at University of Central Florida and volunteers with Latinos Salud, a nonprofit community- and minority-based HIV agency. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

At 22, Miami’s Pedro Zamora became a national symbol for living with HIV, when he appeared in 1994 on MTV’s The Real World. Millions mourned his death when he died of AIDS complications on Nov. 11, 1994, just after the reality show’s final third-season episode aired.

Today, he is honored through the Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship program for high school seniors, college freshmen, sophomores and juniors who are actively fighting HIV/AIDS through public service and leadership.

“In our culture, we don’t really talk to each other about the empowerment of going to see a doctor if you have something,” said Abdon Orrostieta, who last year received the scholarship for his service with Latinos Salud, a South Florida organization dedicated to fighting stigma around talking about HIV/AIDS in the Hispanic community.

“It’s important for groups like Latinos Salud to go out there and start helping others because if it wasn’t for these groups, I wouldn’t really know that much about HIV or STDs,” said Orrostieta, 23.

The scholarship program began in 2009, run by the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco. First it was named the Youth Essay Scholarship Program. In 2012, it became the Young Leaders Scholarship Program. In 2014, the program was expanded and became the Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship. May 2 is the deadline for this year’s scholarship.

Orrostieta, a Mexican-American student from Pompano Beach majoring in health science at the University of Central Florida, was inspired to work with Latinos Salud after seeing that there was a stigma in his own community about going to the doctor. When he came out as gay, he realized that within his own community there were stereotypes of masculinity and virginity.

“I first met Abdon when he volunteered to perform outreach with our Mpowerment program, which we call Somos. Unlike so many college students who volunteer at our agency, Abdon was not here just to pad his résumé or earn extra credits. For him, this was personal,” Stephen Fallon, executive director of Latinos Salud, wrote in his 2015 letter to the Zamora scholarship committee.

“Abdon’s goal, as he explains to me, is to bring the cultural competence and service-oriented outlook that he experienced at organizations like Latinos Salud to a specialized medical career that will help patients living with HIV and other infectious diseases,” Fallon continued. “While medical school and residency can grind the compassion out of many a student, I believe that Abdon will be able to hold his focus on best of both the community-based and clinical service worlds.”

As of Jan. 31, 2014, there were 27,035 people living with HIV/AIDS in Miami-Dade County and 17,632 in Broward, according to Care Resource, one of South Florida’s leading HIV/AIDS service providers. In Miami-Dade, 43 percent of people with HIV are black/African American and 47.5 percent are men who have sex with other men.

Orrostieta is “really into educating his peers about HIV and STDs,” Fallon told the Miami Herald.

“He had been a member of our Somos Youth Group (it means ‘We are’). He was in the core group and they would plan fun education events to talk about safer sex, PrEP (preventive HIV medication) — all those things. He participated in the Florida AIDS Walk the past two years, both in fundraising and walking with us,” Fallon said.

For one prevention event, called Diversisafe, Orrostieta drove three hours from college in Orlando to attend.

Fallon said much has changed in the decades since Zamora contracted AIDS and died.

“If young guys do get infected, they don’t have to face the short life expectancy and low quality of life that he did,” Fallon said. “Things are better that way. But HIV does require someone to change everything about their life, so peers like Abdon help spread the message that life is still easier if you can stay HIV negative.”

To apply

What: Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship Program.

Who: High school seniors, college freshmen, sophomores and juniors 27 and younger who demonstrate a commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS.

Awards: Range from $2,500 to $5,000 and will be awarded in August.

Deadline: May 2.

More information: Visit www.aidsmemorial.org to download an application.

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